Living and writing about music in Nashville during the 1990s, it was riveting for me to watch singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams’s evolution. Playing the smaller clubs, hanging out with the hip songwriters, performing with musicians from bands that included Dwight Yoakam and the Mavericks, hitting the art gallery circuit and supporting countless benefits, Williams, with her spiky blond shag and pointy cowboy boots, was everywhere.
I once heard her take a line she overheard a guy tell his gal pal and her friends at a bar (“Keep your hands off one another!”) and immediately riff it into a catchy, damning song.
But for all her accessibility, Williams had a faraway look in her eye—the look of someone always searching for something, someone, somewhere else. You can hear it in her music: the yearning, restless, timeworn quality. Innocence is lost with every blink, as the best poets know.
Then she hit it big—a gold record and a Grammy Award—with “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” and blink!, she was gone to tour the world. Williams eventually settled in Los Angeles and married her manager, ending a trail of broken hearts.
This year she has been touring to promote a 25th anniversary re-release of her long-out-of-print 1988 self-titled album for Rough Trade (its surreal world breakup single “Changed the Locks” was covered by Tom Petty), for her 2011 album Blessed (which was recorded with über-producer Don Was) and for an upcoming album.
Twenty-five years after the self-titled album’s release, each song still singes, particularly “Passionate Kisses” (which won a Country Song of the Year Grammy, as performed by Mary Chapin Carpenter), the rarely heard sentiment of “The Night’s Too Long,” and the rollicking New Orleans-inflected “Crescent City.”
“Being married and feeling comfortable in my life, I’ve been able to go outside myself and write about other things,” Williams says. “I feel like this current album, as a whole, is positive, but it’s not my so-called ‘happy’ album. Yes, I’m in love and I’m happy in my personal life. But my personal life isn’t the only focus. There aren’t all those [songs about] unrequited love…but there are songs about all sorts of things. It’s just a lot easier to stretch these days.”
“I Don’t Know How You’re Livin’” is a questioning plea to Williams’s down-on-his-heels brother, with a weathered edge that eventually extends a loving hand. The pedal steel weeper “Copenhagen” is a song for her late manager, who helped guide her in her early days and died unexpectedly. Elvis Costello, known for his great harmony singing, makes a rare non-vocal cameo by playing some stinging guitar.
“I didn’t have a fully realized picture of what I wanted the album to sound like going in, but I hardly ever do,” Williams says. “Back when I was playing open mic nights by myself…It never occurred to me to pick just one [musical] style. That’s stayed with me ever since. ”
Her literary heritage plays a large part in her songwriting, due to her award-winning poet father Miller Williams—who gave her a “culturally rich, but economically poor” upbringing where artistic expression was of primary importance.
“Thanks to my dad, I grew up around poets and novelists and they all had families and normal lives and most of them didn’t achieve even nominal success until much later in life,” she recalls. “I have to keep reminding people that, yeah, I’m a musician, but first and foremost, I’m an artist, and art is about expression, about expressing your feelings about what you’re going through every day.”
Lucinda Williams performs at Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, 76 Main Street, Westhampton Beach, on Saturday, June 21. Tickets are $135, $110 and $85. Visit whbpac.org or call 631-288-1500.